Court Challenges Lead Change In Public Perception Of Pot

TORONTO (CP) - For the young owner of a hip new specialty shop, it's a
special feeling when someone's mom or dad comes in to do a little
last-minute Christmas shopping for the kids.

But when the shop in question is the Friendly Stranger, a boutique that
specializes in pipes, papers and other pot-smoking paraphernalia, it can
only mean one thing: the times, they are a-changin' once again.

"They come in, and they're like, 'He wanted this, this, and this; I have no
idea what this is, but I know it's only for cannabis, so it's OK,'" Robin
Ellins, founder of the Friendly Stranger, said with a chuckle.

"It's been a big change for us to see that happening over the years."

Canada, it seems, is in the grips of a 21st-century bout of reefer madness.

Seriously ill people who qualify can get permission from Ottawa to smoke pot
to ease their symptoms; an Ontario judge has even ordered the federal
government to provide them with the drug.

That ruling last month widened a legal loophole that has hamstrung the laws
governing possession of small quantities of marijuana. For now, judges won't
convict in such cases, even if those charged are willing to plead guilty.


And while Ottawa is appealing the ruling, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon
has said he wants to relax Canada's possession laws, a move that recent
opinion polls suggest has a lot of public support.

It's all very exciting for lawyer and cannabis crusader Alan Young, who
represented participants in Canada's medical-marijuana program during their
successful court challenge late last year. Such a challenge never would have
succeeded 10 years ago, he said.

"Something changed in the 1990s," said Young. "What changed, I don't know.
But something definitely did."

Statistics from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto
suggest that the number of Canadians who smoke pot is on the rise,
especially among teenagers.

In 2001, 11.2% of Canadian adults surveyed by the Centre for Addiction and
Mental Health reported using marijuana in the past 12 months, compared with
8.6% in 1998.

Among men, 15.4% said they'd used pot during the past year, compared with
11.4% in 1994; consumption rates for women were largely steady at 7.3% in
Canadians aged 18 to 29 were smoking more as well -- 26.8% compared with
18.3% in 1996 -- as were 30- to 49-year-olds, who reported a 15.8%
consumption rate in 2001, compared with 11.3% in 1996.

For teens, the numbers are even more striking.

A CAMH study of Ontario adolescents found that 29.8% of respondents in 2001
reported consuming pot during the past year, compared with a scant 12.7% in
Pot even outpaced tobacco, which was used by just 23.6% of the respondents,
who were from grades 7 to 12. More boys than girls -- 33.7% versus 26% --
reported using pot in the last year.

In 2001, respondents who reported selling cannabis set an all-time high of
8.3%, compared with just 3% in 1991.

"I think people are a little bit more open, and in their own little way,
trying to push the envelope a little bit," Ellins said.

"Why should someone be able to walk down the street smoking a cigarette if
they can't walk down the street smoking a joint? The first one is deadly,
and the second one's not."

So-called marijuana "grow houses" have become commonplace. Police raid them
on a regular basis, often in quiet, suburban neighbourhoods where
large-scale drug traffickers aren't supposed to be common.

In 1991, there were just over 33,000 cannabis-related offences --
possession, trafficking, importation and production -- committed in Canada,
according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. In 2001, that
number had almost doubled to 70,624.

Young said he's still skeptical of Ottawa's sincerity about
decriminalization, which would see possession of 30 grams or less of pot
become a regulatory offence that doesn't lead to a criminal record.

Eventually, governments will come to realize that marijuana has as much
revenue-generating potential as society's other addictions, most notably
alcohol and gambling, Young said.

"Suddenly, the government will be telling you how benign it is."

Not so fast, warned Dr. Harold Kalant, a professor emeritus of pharmacology
at the University of Toronto and a world-renowned expert on addiction

Anything that has mind-altering effects clearly has the potential to do
serious damage, said Kalant. Like alcohol, it just depends on who uses it,
how they use it and how much they consume.

"People have read and heard so often that cannabis is a safe drug that they
don't realize that any drug that is able to do anything is able to do harm
as well," Kalant said.

"It's a question of how much you have to use to run into harmful effects."

Studies around the world have linked marijuana use to schizophrenia, lowered
IQs and cancer, among other things, said Kalant.

And while no one's ever died of an overdose of cannabis, there's a growing
body of evidence to suggest that it's been playing a major role in fatal car
crashes for years.

"There's no question that it has been shown to impair driving ability."

Which is why police forces across Canada are training select officers to
spot motorists who might be driving under the influence of marijuana, a drug
that's not as easily detected in a spot check as alcohol.

Pubdate: Sun, 2 Mar 2003
Source: Winnipeg Sun (CN MB)
Copyright: 2003 Canoe Limited Partnership